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Mask Of The Rose review: a lavish gothic dating sim that's a little light on romance

Date a devil and solve a murder

I had one question for Mask Of The Rose: Can I smooch the Cthulhu monster? I mean, I assume you can, they’re one of ten characters you’re able to romantically pursue in the delicious depths of this Eldritch dating sim. But in actuality, I simply don't know, because after ten-plus hours and multiple playthroughs, that all-important question remains unanswered. It’s not something unique to my dashing, tentacled suitor, either. Many of my romantic pursuits in the Neath totally fizzled out. It's giving Berocca when I wanted Coke and Mentos.

Mask Of The Rose is Failbetter’s visual novel dating sim set in the Fallen London universe, an already established alt-history Victorian London that the studio has been building over a decade as a quite excellent browser game. In this alternative history, London has been dragged through the Earth’s crust by bats and now resides in a vast underground cavern called the Neath. With the economy literally in the pits and Queen Vicky refusing to leave her cushy palace, London has become somewhat unruly, turning into a lasciviously gothic underworld home to a whole parade of monsters, devils, living statues, cloaked beings with red eyes... basically the entire cast of the Goosebumps books.

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It’s a fantastic setting, one that has two brilliant spin-offs in Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, and Mask Of The Rose is a welcome expansion into how it all began, set just a month after the fall. It’s full of lavish lore and history, dubious characters with dodgy motivations, corpses coming back to life, tussles with power authorities, and eldritch mysteries to uncover. But at the same time, I've never had this much trouble smooching any of the characters in a dating sim in my life.

Playing as a Fallen Londoner scrambling to make ends meet, you manage to nab a job working for a mysterious cloaked creature called Mr. Pages, one of the new masters of the city. Your job is to interview the folks of London for a new census, one that’s concerned not just with their living circumstances but also their romantic affairs. As you roam around London gathering information, you have the opportunity to embark on romantic affairs yourself, as well as get tangled up in strange mysteries - starting with your new enigmatic boss. Why is Mr. Pages interested in people’s love lives in the first place? Does he just like juicy gossip as much as I do, or is it that he wants to consume the delicious hearts of those in romantic pursuits? Surely the gossip, right?

The hunky doctor Archie is fine, I guess. But in a world of creepy monsters and bisexual devils, I’m not really going to go for the boring human man am I?

The Neath is an underworld filled with story threads for you to pull on if you wish, but with the limitation of only speaking with two characters each day, its easy to put romance on the back burner. Some romantic routes are easier to kick-start than others, like how the game practically hurls your flatmate-doctor-hunk Archie at you, but if you've got your eye on anyone else then you're thrown into a Rubik's cube of decisions. Mask Of the Rose is so dense that finding routes where you can romance characters to the end-game feels like navigating Fallen London’s constantly shifting streets.

My kind of romance
Big props to Failbetter for not only letting you play asexual or aromantic from the get-go but also pretty much obliterating the need to announce your gender identity altogether if you wish. You’re not explicitly asked about your gender identity or sexuality, only how you’d like to be addressed and your preference for romantic, physical, or platonic pursuits.

Don’t get me wrong, the storytelling is still stellar. I’ve broken someone out of prison, I’ve been an ambassador for an ancient civilisation, I’ve heard the whispers of ghosts from Parliament's watery grave, I’ve been held captive by devils, made friends with talking rats, seen people come back from the dead - it’s been a riot. But please, Failbetter, just let me egregiously flirt with the kinda mean but super dapper gentleman who may or may not be a devil. That's why we're here, right? It's a shame because you can tell that Failbetter are keen on exploring a broader view of romance and relationships that are divorced from stuffy Victorian society. Friendship is more than accessible in Fallen London, it's just that pushing that into romance is a little out of reach.

Part of your London adventures means making use of Mask Of The Rose's fill-in-the-blanks mini-game, where you’re able to create stories that other people request from you - like if a character needs a saucy prompt to kick start her novel, or someone wants you to record their past of being a revolutionary in the pits of Hell. I found the mini-game fun, but a little underused. Mask Of The Rose makes out that you can weave your own stories (truth or fiction) and then present them to folks for gossip or information, but that’s not really the case. It's smart at first glance, but in actuality it’s more of a tool to complete quests set by characters - which is a little disappointing.

You don't always get to explore every topic in a conversation, so carefully picking which lines of dialogue to persue is important. I have no idea what I did to spur the line "He is a Man of Surpassing Flexibility" but here we are.

This mini-game also ties into a wider detective tale concerning murderrrr, because nothing goes better with gothic romance than a homicide. You bump into different happenings and events during each playthrough, but the whodunnit remains a staple of every run - and yet it’s also almost completely optional. You can use the fill-in-the-blanks to create a theory of who was behind the murder, the weapon they used, and a motive - which is clever - but actually getting those answers is difficult, again because the game is so dense. I would try getting close to characters so they'd reveal more information, but that meant spending a lot of time with that character and missing out on other story threads. In this way, I wouldn't say that Mask Of The Rose is a detective game as much as much a visual novel with a detective side quest that you can decide to puzzle over if you wish.

This does tie in to an element of Mask Of The Rose that I enjoyed immensley, though, which is the feeling that in this shady universe information is currency. It feels juicy to gain a clue by deliberately getting close to a character, and your relationship with people will change over time as you get cosy, introducing new storylines and ways to interact. There are RPG-y elements that affect this too. Picking your character's background at the start affects how quickly you hit it off with certain characters. Choosing to be raised in a tailoring family might not go down well with the upper-class echelons but hard-working folk will understand. You can also choose what clothes to wear before meeting people, like popping a massive hat with protruding mushrooms on your head in hopes of impressing that cute seamstress at the market who likes to dish the dirt on her customers.

Much as I loved trading in gossip, it’s just another distraction in a game where ultimately I’m here to find the love of my life, tentacled or not. I’ve greatly enjoyed weaving my own tales and following my nose exploring the Eldritch corners of this world, but I was hoping for more romantic endeavors seeing as it labels itself first and foremost as a dating sim. I’ve left the Neath with an anthology of tales, it’s just a shame that none of them included escapades of romance, flirtatious encounters, or straight-up monster fucking.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the developer Failbetter Games

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